Since the first humans roamed the face of this planet, there has been a need for not only food, but shelter from the elements in a place of security and comfort where family gathers. However, our shelter expectations have come a long way since then. Enter building science, the study of “how heat, air, and moisture interact with a building enclosure and its occupants,” according to Building Knowledge Canada’s (BKC) Vice President and Director of Building Science Andrew Oding.
Building science seeks to improve a building’s performance through knowledge derived from various sciences including architecture, chemistry, engineering, and physics. In some European countries, such as Sweden, this discipline is referred to as building physics. It seeks to improve buildings by creating better energy efficiency, air quality, and increased durability and comfort.
Building science comprehensively analyzes what makes a building a fully functional system, not merely components operating independently from each other. Viewing a building as a system is part of the building science discipline that began in the 1960s, after the realization that traditional approaches to building construction were resulting in building failures.
The building science discipline is filled with complexities, such as those entailed in building codes and standards compliance and achieving various home rating systems. This is something that Building Knowledge Canada is striving to make less complicated for those engaged in residential construction.
Based in Cambridge, Ontario, BKC was originally a division of Air Solutions Inc. that was established in 1986. BKC become independently incorporated in 1997. The company, founded by current President Gord Cooke, is now Canada’s largest residential home performance company specializing in building science and its accompanying strategies.
Its team of twenty-three is comprised mainly of engineers, engineering technicians and architectural technologists. BKC also has registered energy advisors and building science professionals serving both federal and provincial programs.
Building Knowledge has three departments that include its field and technical services division that does “the onsite inspections and testing of homes, HVAC systems and enclosure reviews,” says Andrew.
The energy modeling services department is where “we do our energy modeling for homes and buildings for code compliance,” he adds. This is also where the company helps builders ensure their projects meet the requirements of energy standards for volunteer programs such as Net Zero Home™, LEED™ passive homes, Energy Star, EnerGuide, and Built Green™.
The third division is the building science division “in which we provide services related to energy and building science with everybody from builders and developers to local, provincial and federal governments and manufacturing corporate clients.” There are approximately 160 builder clients across Canada, of which about twenty-five to thirty are corporate clients such as Enbridge, the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), BC Housing, BC Hydro, Canadian Homebuilders Association, the Ontario Homebuilders’ Association (OHBA), and many more.
BKC also has clients in the United States through its sister company, Construction Instruction, “which has the largest app in the North America construction industry dedicated to building science,” says President Gord Cooke. “It’s been widely used and available in North America for about 10 years.” This mobile app is a valued resource for those in the building industry and provides building science articles, home construction videos, installation methods, and building materials’ and best practices’ information.
As part of the company’s commitment to the industry, Andrew has chaired several committees and councils including the Canadian Home Builders’ Net Zero Energy Housing Council and the Technical Research Committee (TRC) for the Canadian Home Builders’ Association (CHBA), the Canadian Green Building Council (CaGBC), and LEED for homes Technical Committee, when the program was first developed.
Perhaps one of the most important committees with which Andrew is affiliated is the National Building Code of Canada Standing Committee on Energy Efficiency in Houses and Buildings (SCEE), which is to release its new energy code for houses and buildings across Canada soon. “The proposed 2020 energy code is a tiered code. The tiers are meant to establish the path or ‘steps’ toward 2030 and beyond, where homes and buildings will need to meet Net-Zero-ready-type energy levels.”
The development of the national tiered code came at the request of all 13 provinces and territories through the Pan Canadian Framework on Clean Growth. The proposed tier development was also supported by many in the building industry as it establishes consistent energy targets across the country. “We had so many different jurisdictions and different provinces requiring many different things that it was a mess for builders, developers and product manufacturers to try to build even one city to another because the rules were changed.”
Much of the value BKC gains through serving on committees is in ensuring “we are doing the right things at the right time,” says Andrew. The company is now seeing air tightness standards being enforced, identified, or achieved. “We also, at the same time, have to make sure that there’s enforcement of ventilation and proper design and install of mechanical systems. More important than the energy use of the home, to us, are the health of the occupants and the durability of the home. If you design with good science, with the health of the occupant in mind, to build a home that’s going to last, you naturally end up with a very efficient home. You just have to be really thorough in applying the science.”
BKC is always making “thoughtful moves forward using building science,” says Andrew. It avoids technological leaps as it does not want to run into “unintended consequences.”
The process begins with helping builders in an assessment to identify energy loads and the interaction of enclosure performance and the indoor environment, e.g. occupant comfort and health. Computer modeling programs, design tools and recognized standards (e.g. CSA F280, ASHRAE 55) are useful in “assessing the heating and cooling loads and the occupant comfort as well. We sort of know how the house should be working.”
From that point, BKC field staff will enter a home to perform diagnostic testing to “compare what we’re testing against what the design parameters are.” Tools employed in the field include blower doors which will determine and assess exterior air infiltration but may also be used in large buildings “to understand if there’s smoke or odour transfer going between units.” Other tools include infrared cameras, HVAC testing equipment, flow hoods, static pressure probes, indoor air quality sensors, temperature monitoring, and relative humidity and carbon dioxide level measuring apparatus. The application of the science and the tools helps reinforce the great efforts builders and their trade partners are making to improve the performance of the buildings they build.
Bill 108, the More Homes, More Choice Act 2019, was passed by the Ontario government last June to reduce costs, speed the processing period for approvals, and increase Ontario’s housing supply. Gord indicates that the company is very supportive of the bill. “We’ve seen, over the years, that it has become incredibly difficult for the building community and the development community to receive approvals. It impacts the construction cycle time – how fast buildings and homes are built – and it also impacts the trades as well,” he says.
“We do need affordable housing. The requirements at this time to either obtain and then to get approvals for residential housing projects are driving up the cost of the housing,” he believes.
Andrew explains that in residential construction there are both hard and soft costs, the hard costs being the materials used in construction and the trades involved. Soft costs encompass regulatory costs, development charges, and engineering approvals, along with other expenses. In the past ten to fifteen years, the soft costs in the planning stages “are far outstripping the hard costs on a building… the thing that is driving the unaffordability or the costs of many homes in Ontario, is actually the regulation, as opposed to the costs of bricks and sticks. I don’t think that many people understand that.”
Working with BKC offers those in the residential housing construction industry a competitive advantage. The company works in synchronization with builders and developers to comprehend consumer expectations in new homes, namely that of healthy environments and efficiency.
New codes are now requiring homes to be more efficient, and Andrew says that people assume that this means that a home has to cost more. “But, what we’re finding is that, if you use building science through things like performance compliance with some of these codes, you could actually build, if you’re careful about it, better-performing homes that are healthier and more efficient for the same or less cost than what the codes would prescriptively have you do. Rarely, do you see opportunities like this.”
He adds that what is being achieved is the builder’s risk of homes that do not perform is lower, and the builder saves money on the hard costs of a home, making a home more affordable. “You’re creating homes that, quite frankly, are some of the healthiest, most durable homes that Canadians can have.”
Climate change or climate crisis cannot be dismissed when speaking about building science. It’s having a huge impact on how the home of the future will have to be designed, for many obvious reasons. In fact, climate crisis is “becoming more of a discussion in the construction industry,” says Gord.
He notes that the term most often used around the discussion is that of ‘resilience,’ adding that whether man made or not, the reality is that things weather patterns are changing, requiring homes to be more resilient and allowing occupants to be “comfortable during extreme temperature swings,” adding that homes need to “handle higher levels of rain deposition and wind. That may seem simple, but it’s probably one of the biggest issues that we’re facing.”
BKC President Gord Cooke says that Building Knowledge Canada helps clients “understand a little bit of the building science of how a house works. It helps them understand the ‘why’ they’re being asked to do certain things,” such as those related to water management, air barriers, and ventilation.
“When the president of a large homebuilder or the site tradesperson understands the science or ‘why’ behind certain best practice, we find they make completely different decisions and also become re-engaged with building better performing homes,” he says, adding that BKC would like to see the builders with which it works “adopt a continuous improvement program so that all their trades and their own teams get some training.”